February 20, 2016

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Barbara Mendel Mayden

For over 35 years, Barbara Mendel Mayden has been active in the American Bar Association. If you can think of a position, she’s probably held it. In addition to chairing the Section of Business Law, she has served on the Board of Governors (twice), the Executive Committee, Chair of the Board’s Operations Committee, the House of Delegates, Chair of the Young Lawyers Division, and as a charter member of the Commission on Women in the Profession, as well as the Commission on Minorities in the Profession, to name just a few prominent positions. In 1998, she received the Business Law Section’s “Glass Cutter Award,” honoring her work in cutting through barriers and achieving in business law.

After so many years of service and practicing law, Mayden thought she’d retired. But less than a year later, in 2007 with Ken Young, a friend from the ABA, they formed Young Mayden, a legal recruiting/consulting firm. Prior to that, she worked most recently at Bass, Berry & Sims in Nashville, and in New York, at Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and White & Case. In this interview, Mayden talks about how a new lawyer just starting out can make a successful, interesting career and why getting involved in the legal community and your local community is so important.

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You went to law school in 1973, before the influx of women in the law. I read that at your law school there was “Ladies’ Day” on Friday. Only on that day the professors called on female students.

It wasn’t a law school–wide deal, but one class. My contracts professor was this wonderfully, curmudgeonly old guy and I think he was amused at all of a sudden having a women or two show up in his class. He designated a day – Fridays – as the day, the only day, that he would call on a woman. It was sort of a benign form of the “singling out” we women would face, and some would say, knowing you’re not going be called on . . . not a terrible thing. Except that, because I was never worried about being called on, I didn’t prepare to be called on. But it was back in the day when discrimination against women in the profession seemed all very civilized. All very pleasant, such as when I applied to a federal judge for a clerkship, and got a very nice letter back that said “You’re wonderfully qualified, but I’m just not going to be hiring any women this year.” Looking back, it feels like refreshingly frank discrimination – you knew what it was – instead of what we get more of today, which is often much more subtle, and confusing. In some ways, it was refreshing that it was so open, because at least we knew what we’re dealing with. 

Did you become more of a fighter because of it?

The more things like that happened, the more you learned from it. I became more purposeful about how I wanted to be perceived. After being asked for coffee on more than one occasion, I began to purposefully walk into a meeting, sit at the head of the table, and say, “Gentlemen, let’s get started.” And, as I gained more confidence, I began to call people out on it. Like the time I went into a meeting – being the woman novelty in the room – and the host lawyer wore a tie decorated with “MCP” all over it. Male Chauvinist Pig. Hilarious, right? I asked him if he had another tie that said “Racist,” which he would wear when dealing with black lawyers. 

You were included in the Women Trailblazers in the Law Oral History. Is there a trail that you blazed that you are most proud of?

As I went along, I wasn’t consciously blazing trails, I was just whacking the weeds as I went. And if that helped women coming up behind me, then that’s terrific. There were those women out there before me who made my path a little easier in their own weed whacking. Jean Allard. Brooksley Born. A great group of pioneers just before me. But most of us were not out there trying to be trailblazers. We were just trying to get our jobs done, putting one high heel in front of the other. 

What’s your role in helping women in the law now?

My philanthropy focus has consistently included helping underserved women and girls, who have historically not been viewed as time and resource worthy to others – the short end of the philanthropic stick. My community volunteer focus has included things like the YWCA, All About Women, and the Middle Tennessee Women’s Fund. So, it isn’t surprising that so often my law-related donation of volunteer time has also been directed to issues affecting women in the law. 

You are often asked to give speeches. What’s your favorite topic?

Law firm life has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, and navigating your law firm life is a very different proposition than when my generation began practicing law. My favorite topic relates to instilling in law students and young lawyers the understanding that the trajectory of your law career is yours to determine – how to be the captain of your own career and find the opportunities that used to be laid out for you, but aren’t so much anymore. That’s a topic near and dear to my heart these days. 

What has changed?

The economics of law practice have changed dramatically since the ’70s when I entered the profession. The brass ring for law firm lawyers then was that their firms would provide them a very comfortable living and there was much pride in the law as one of the “learned professions.” The emphasis on law as a business has come to often overshadow the learned profession part, as big money began being the norm in big law, and as incentives have changed, so has so often, the culture. 

You had three children. How did you balance practicing law and raising children?

Seriatum. Very early, as a young lawyer in New York, I was involved in the creation of and then as a member of the American Bar Association’s first Commission on Women in the Profession. It was a small, cohesive group, chaired by a practicing lawyer from Arkansas, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The issues that we explored on that first commission were new territory. I was a coauthor with another commission member, Cory Amron, of a book on balancing family and the practice of law. We surveyed firms across the country about what they were doing (not much at the time), and put together a “best practices” – it was all so new then. The irony was that at the time, I didn’t have a personal clue. Footloose and fancy-free. Then, boom boom boom, I was married and had three kids under the age of three. But, by that time, I was a little more senior, so I had a little more autonomy – control over my professional life and more of a “say” in the scheduling of it. 

So, my advice to everybody is get your career well down the track and only then have your kids. I’m kidding! But it was easier for me, because I had my first baby around 15 years after I began practicing and my career was pretty well established. 

You moved to Nashville in 1985 and took a break from practicing law. Were you thinking of doing something else?

At the time of the move to Nashville, I had 20 years of law practice under my belt. So, I thought, “new territory, new life – this is my chance to do something completely new professionally.” I’d been a corporate lawyer for all these years and loved it, but I thought that now, maybe I’ll be a music lawyer. Maybe I’ll be a prosecutor. Maybe I’ll do something totally different. 

A dear friend, who was president of the Tennessee Bar at the time said, “You’re moving to Nashville! I assume you’re going to go work for Bass Berry and Sims,” because they were a great firm that did the same type of work I had done in New York. I said, “If I do, just take me out and shoot me” because this was really my opportunity to spread my wings and do something different. So, I took a year off, got everything and everyone settled and then I went to work for Bass Berry and Sims. Why? I had time to reflect and decided it’s a pretty good life. It’s intellectually challenging, smart people, interesting work. Why wouldn’t I do that? At the end of the day, I realized that what I liked about my business law practice outweighed the allure of reinventing myself. 

Did you continue your same practice?

Yes and no. In New York, even back then, the practices were pretty siloed. In New York, I was doing finance, working with banks, and I had done some work in the municipal finance area. In that year I took off from practicing after I moved to Nashville, I taught a class at the Vanderbilt Law School on negotiating business documents. When I looked around for a textbook, I found that there wasn’t one. This was new territory back then. So, I took a financing agreement I had used, annotated it to illustrate the law behind the provisions and basically used that as a textbook. The next semester I taught, curious about the differences, I took a merger agreement and annotated it, and realized that around 80 percent of the merger document was the same as the loan agreement I had used the preceding semester. You had representations. You had warranties. You had covenants. You had events of default. The moving parts – making it a loan agreement or a merger agreement – made up the remaining 20 percent. So, yes – a new practice area – corporate not commercial; private and public company representation rather than a bank-based representation – but frankly, the learning curve was pretty flat. 

I’m interested in failure. What did you learn from a time that you failed?

Of course, I’ve failed. Talk about learning curves! The learning curve for my entry into the profession wasn’t flat, it was precipitous. I had never known a lawyer. I didn’t know what lawyers did. I made a passel of mistakes at my first law firm. When I moved to New York, I started with a clean slate. You learn from your mistakes and don’t make them a second time. But you make different mistakes and learn from them too. 

I’m a recruiter now and I tell people that if you make these mistakes and you change firms, nobody’s going to know. Clean slate. They’re going to see you as the result of what you learned, but they’re not going to see the mistake that taught you the lesson. 

In 2007, you formed your own recruiting/consulting firm, Young Mayden. What motivated you?

As I mentioned, I had my first baby when I was much older than most, so when my kids were of that age where those soccer games became really very important, I’d already practiced law for 25 years. I thought I was going to retire. I’d been very active in the American Bar Association. I’d been the chair of the Business Law Section. I’d been chair of the Young Lawyers. I’d been on the Board of Governors. I’d been in the House of Delegates for almost 20 years, but I was done. I retired from my law firm. And, I walked away from the ABA to much fanfare and people said, “You’ll be back.” And I said, “No, been there, done that. I’m done.” 

A little later that year was my youngest child’s bat mitzvah, and many of the ABA friends I had made from around the country came. One of these friends, Ken Young, said to me, “I’ve got a business idea for you.” He was head of the labor and employment group at a multistate law firm. He said, “You know half the law world because of business law. I know half the law world in labor and employment. We need to get together and put people together,” and we did. I’d been retired for less than a year, and realized it wasn’t for me. 

Given your vantage point in the recruiting world, what are the big challenges facing the legal market and profession?

We alluded to one when I referred to young lawyers learning to captain their career. A big challenge is the career progression of lawyers. How do they learn to be great lawyers? If you look at law firms and at how many of their partners are those who rose through that firm’s associate rank, it’s a percentage that getting smaller and smaller. So, if the associate pool isn’t the pool from which the future of the firm is being shaped, what is the firm’s interest in training you to be the best lawyer you can be? The firm’s interest is all too often in getting the work done quickly and efficiently and to do that, getting their associates as specialized and siloed as possible early on. That may be to the short-term benefit of the law firm, but it is to the long-term a detriment of the lawyer who is breaking into the profession. It also can turn out to be just deadly dull if all you do is the same type of deal or case over and over again. So, keeping the profession energized and thinking broadly – across practice lines – is critical to creating an excellent, interested profession. I also worry about the commoditization of legal services, which presents a whole other set of issues. 

If I’m a young lawyer and am getting siloed, should I start looking for a new law firm?

No. No. No. A friend of mine was a summer associate at a firm in Atlanta back in the day. The firm put their summer associates in the basement of their office tower. When a new assignment came up, they would put it in a pneumatic tube, send it to the basement, and the next associate up would get that assignment out of the tube. So, using that image, you don’t want to get assignments through a pneumatic tube. You want to have control over what you do and over getting a broad spectrum of experience, which is necessary to being a good lawyer. So, how do you do that? 

You are proactive. You don’t wait for that assignment to come down the pneumatic tube (or the assigning partner, but often the same amount of thought goes into it). You are proactive. You knock on the door of that partner with the cool health-care deals – if you think health care might be something interesting – and say, “So, Barbara (it’s a first-name basis firm), you’re just a great health-care lawyer, and I understand you are doing these really interesting deals and I’ve always been so interested in this area. Do you think maybe that when the next deal comes in that I can work with you on that?” 

Well, Barbara is very successful, and Barbara has an ego. She loves it. So, that’s how you get the work you want – you ask for it. Then, when something comes in via the pneumatic tube/assigning partner, you say, “I would love to do that except my plate is already full.” And yes it is full – with the work you arranged to get put on it. 

As a recruiter, I see firms outside the “money center” cities who, when I show them a young lawyer from one of the big, great New York or Chicago or DC firms (which they used to love to get, thank goodness for me) they often are now leery – they say, “We don’t want those guys. They don’t know enough. They’re too narrow.” It’s incumbent on associates to make sure that’s not them. 

Is there an award that you are most proud of?

I loved getting the Business Law Section Glass Cutter Award. A professional validation from your friends is especially gratifying. 

For 35 years you’ve been extensively and continually involved with the ABA and held so many high-profile positions. As chair of the Business Law Section, what did you set out to achieve and why?

I wanted institutionalize some things I thought were special about our Section. For example, when I first went to Section meetings, I would listen to the “grown-ups” discussing hard things that I barely understood. And those people were so often people I had read about – and here they were, in person. I remember going to one meeting and sitting next to Al Summer, who was a huge figure in the business law world. He turned to me and said, “Well, Barbara, what do you think?” And it was just exhilarating. As chair, I introduced a program we call the Business Law Advisers where every year, we select three luminaries of business law as advisers, who come to the meetings and are tasked to mingle and share ideas. It is still going strong, and we have a stellar group of Business Law Advisers providing a real membership benefit to Section members who might otherwise not be in traveling in such a stellar orbit. 

I’m not sure everyone knows what the ABA House of Delegates does. Can you talk about this?

The House of Delegates is the policy-making body for the ABA. When you hear that the ABA has taken a certain position on a certain matter – that is the work of the House of Delegates. What I love about membership in the House of Delegates is that it forces you to stay broad, because you consider issues that affect all facets of our profession. It reminds you that the law is a large umbrella and we all have a stake in all of these professional issues. Issues of justice aren’t just the province of constitutional lawyers and litigators. They’re for all of us. Service in the House of Delegates is a constant reminder that as a lawyer, I share responsibility for our system of justice. 

You’ve been also very involved in your community. Why is it important for lawyers to get involved in their community?

There are two sides of that equation. One side is why it’s important to the lawyer and the other is why is it important to our community that lawyers get involved. I’ll start with that. 

Lawyers are trained to find the problem and fix it. We are valuable assets to any not-for-profit or philanthropic area because of that training. 

Why does the lawyer do it? Yes, it’s a way to give back and that’s satisfying in and of itself. But, in addition to the “feel good” part, getting involved is the key to becoming a respected lawyer. It’s key to how you build your reputation and in turn, how you develop your own legal business. What is this “networking” you hear so much about? It is a lot less about going to a bunch of receptions and lunches, and it is a lot more about getting out in the community and showing people that you are a problem solver. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?

There are a lot of lawyers who are very good at what they do. But how do you stand out from the crowd; how do you create your differentiator? Yes, you get out in the community and become recognized as a problem solver. But working within the organized bar – whether it be the American Bar Association Business Law Section, the Tennessee Bar Association, the Nashville Bar Association – these are all great paths to establishing expertise. 

When I tell young lawyers, “You need to get out there. You need to write articles. You need to be giving these speeches” the answer is often, “Easy to say, but how do I do that? How do I get a platform?” You show up. This is what professional networking really is: showing up and raising your hand, and a bar association – whether it be national, state, or local (each with its own advantage) – gives you a forum to do that. Before you know it, you are recognized as the expert, and that creates your differentiator and a trail to success. 

Thank you so much!